A Word With Pianist
by S. H. Watkins, Sr.
10:00 a.m. at Portland State University is a time filled with hubbub and motion. Students scamper to and from and around their daily classes and lives. I cross campus and descend to the basement level of Lincoln Hall. Less commotion here, mostly groups of students gathered around tables or lounging in chairs. This is the basement of the music department, so many have instrument cases. Here I find the office of Darrell Grant, Assistant Professor of Music Studies and Jazz pianist extraordanaire. His air is casual and friendly, as always. His office is organized and neat. After a few miscues with the recorder, we talk about his past, present and future…
JazzUSA: Okay let’s start at the beginning. I know that you moved here from the Manhattan/New York area, where everyone goes to get into the music scene, but where are you from originally?
DG: I was born in Pittsburgh, we moved to Colorado to Denver where I grew up, then I went to school in Rochester New York, did my undergraduate there, then mastered at the University of Miami. Then… I moved to New York City.
JazzUSA: What did you master in?
DG: I did my masters in jazz, and I did my undergraduate in classical piano at Eastman school of music.
JazzUSA: Piano all the way, huh?
DG: Yeah, it’s always going to be music.
JazzUSA: when did you start playing music?
DG: I guess I started taking lessons when I was seven, but I probably started playing before that… at three or four I guess.
JazzUSA: Did you have a piano at home?
DG: “Well, we didn’t… I had a toy piano. At my senior recital at Eastman, on the program I have a little picture of me, I had this little plaid suit on and bow tie and I’m standing beside the toy piano looking like Nat Cole.
JazzUSA: Did anybody else in your family play?
DG: Yes, my mother was a gospel singer and played piano growing up. My sister played piano, brother played guitar, my father was more the literary inspiration, he did a lot of poetry. We did a lot of family concerts, we actually had a radio program when I was growing up, on the religious station we did a 10-minute radio broadcast. ” Moments of inspiration” or something like that it was called.
JazzUSA: What type of music did you play when you first turned pro?
DG: traditional jazz, Dixieland with this band called the “Pearl Street jazz band”. It was actually a bunch of kid’s, led by the Trombone player was the son of a University music professor. He just had a fascination with this music, so he had all these old Louis Armstrong 78’s and you know “Hot Five”, “Hot Seven” Fletcher Henderson and, he was transcribing this stuff! Fletcher Henderson arrangements, you know, I was doing this stuff when I was 15 years old. We had a steady weekend gate, we did balls and parties, and it was my first real professional job. We also played for my mother, and in nursing homes and stuff like that.
JazzUSA: then you went to Manhattan and got into that the music scene…
DG: Yeah, after all that school I said “okay, let’s see if I can make it in New York”, so I went there and the first really major gate I got was playing a while with Woody Shaw before he died, and that kind of introduced me to Manhattan. Then Steve Scott left Betty Carter. The drummer that was with her was Troy Davis, who I think still plays for Terence Blanchard, and so he recommended me to Betty. She came by and heard me in a little club I was playing in Brooklyn and said “OK, lets take this young man on…” and she took me into the band and that was it!
JazzUSA: Any anecdotes from the Betty Carter years?
DG: (laughing) She had a very strong personality, but she always liked me, I think… I never got yelled at that much. And it was an incredible experience, my first time going to Europe, to Japan, playing for standing room audiences, she had just won the grammy for Look what I got records. So she was on top of her game and really feeling and enjoying her success. That she worked so hard for, I feel that I like I followed in her footsteps a lot because she was all about giving young people an opportunity for music, a mentor. So I try to do that hiring by students to do gigs with me. The first time was the Mount Hood Festival I had a trio with my students, they were good they were on that caliber they could have gotten a gig with someone like that. So I feel that passing on that musical information that’s what’s really important, and really going out of your way, just doing any thing to communicate with the audiences.
JazzUSA: Just keeping the jazz rollin’. OK Manhattan to Portland, obviously you left the hot bed of commercial jazz and came out here to the home of jazz.
DG: Well you know Portland, it’s a great place to live, it’s got an incredible amount of musicians. It’s just like that here, there’s just so many great musicians, just doing different things, interesting things. That’s the thing that I found when I came out here from New York, New York is great there’s all these players but the scenes are pretty separate. When your kind in of in one or not in the other, where here you have these players who have kind of different styles. Who in New York wouldn’t necessarily be playing together, but out here it’s so limited, so there styles come together and I think that’s what makes the Northwest style. I mean they swing, they’ve all played with everybody, Carmen McCrae or whoever, good world class players. But their sort of bringing their own sound into this mix, so that you get this music that’s really wild and great.
JazzUSA: So your saying that, it would be safe to say, that’s kind of been echoed by what Jeff Lorber said that this whole Northwest jazz thing that we’re trying to claim that their is. Maybe it isn’t so much that there’s a northwest jazz sound, but that there’s a scene that allows jazz musicians to play in a more open environment.
DG: I think that’s true, and I think that what people don’t know is that the quality is so high. Now that I don’t live in New York, I’m amazed that when I was in New York, I held the view that nothing of significance could happen outside of New York City. I mean how could, I mean WHY. What is there! And now that I don’t live there, I can’t believe that I thought that. It’s how could I think that I mean it’s any creative thing it’s not just music. I mean Will Vinton the King of Animation lives here in Portland. Gus Zandt auteur of cinema lives here. So it’s like all this stuff about New York being the center of the universe, is something that people in New York made up to allow them to suffer and feel like they were doing it for some good reason. But there is so much creativity and more opportunity out here.
JazzUSA: Speaking of creativity and opportunity your new release “Smokin’ Java” is very creative and I guess it was an opportunity for you seeing how it’s on your own record company, Lair Hill records?.
DG: That’s true, I kind of been thinking about it for a while, I have a lot of people that I know in New York and my musical peers and we’ve been talking about this every since we’ve been recording artist, how difficult it is with jazz to get your music out there. The major label thing doesn’t necessarily work because it’s such a small percentage of their revenue is that they don’t put a lot of attention on it, they have other things to think about. Independent labels have to struggle with distribution and sometimes it’s spotty. I think that it’s more taking charge of your own music means, taking charge of the recording and distribution of it as well. So it’s been really satisfying, it’s an incredible experience to bring a product to market. Because you see all the things that businesses deal with every day, people missing deadlines, trucks not showing up, you know things, little bitty mistakes, that means you have to go all the way back to the drawing board with your products! Musicians don’t think about that kind of stuff, but that’s what when you’re in the business and you’re trying to bring a product out and you’re putting something out into the world like that, all those things become important.
JazzUSA: And you did a regional release!
DG: I decided that I really wanted to take advantage of the holidays here in Portland. You know, because people buy a lot of stuff, and this CD was kind of special that way. So I released it regionally at the end of November. It will be released nationally in May, May 16th.
JazzUSA: May 16th! You’ve got some bookings back east I understand to promote this.
DG: Yeah I have a gig at “Blues Alley” in DC on the 24th. I’m working at this club in New York, called “Smoke” on the 26th and 27th of May. I’ll be touring throughout the summer trying to get the music out.
JazzUSA: You working on your next one already?
DG: I’m not working on it yet, I’m trying to figure out how to get it done. I have the music picked out and I know who I’m going to use and everything. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how and when to do it. I’m looking forward to some upcoming projects.
JazzUSA: Now that you have your own record company, are looking to bring any other musicians into the fold to help then do production work or to help them get out?
DG: I would like to, I sort of been keeping to this Northwest I think that it really makes sense to use the talents that we have here. There’s a lot of world class talent here. I have no visions of being this multinational recording conglomerate, but I think that I could do justice to some releases of some artists here.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about the “Smokin’ Java” for a moment. Which I think was inspired by the whole coffee clatch culture.
DG: Well somewhat, the whole coffee thing was a way to tie in to make the cd relevant to me. The band was from New York and I was from New York and I moved out here and I was going to release it on my own label out here. The title has this whole coffee connotation, so I was looking for a way to bridge that gap between east coast and west coast. It seemed like a good thing to tie it all together especially with the story.
JazzUSA: Of Pop Langston
DG: Yeah I love that name, anyway, sort of way to bring that journey into perspective my journey from New York to Portland. My life from out there to here.
JazzUSA: Well it’s a great release Darrell. We like it, I hope you pick up lots of national attention and maybe you’ll sell a billion copies and you can do spend all your time doing this. Well thank you for your time and good luck to you.
DG: Hey great, OK, all right.
RealAudio Format (635k).